VENTURA, CALIF. — It’s nearly noon on a beautiful Friday at the global headquarters of outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Workers gather around laptops on picnic tables nestled under a grape arbor. Some lift their voices to be heard over the sounds of children squealing with laughter on the grassy playground at the company’s on-site child development center. Others munch on company-subsidized, locally grown organic snacks from the employee cafe.
And some check the daily wave report on a nearby white board: “Cleaner than yesterday. High tide @ 4 pm.” Grabbing beach towels drying over various handrails around campus, they take their surfboards from a big storage room, and head out to go surfing.
“I’m so much more productive when I get into the water every day,” says retail marketing coordinator Danielle Egge as she winds her white-blond hair into a loose bun and wades into the surf.
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True to Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s title of his memoir, “Let My People Go Surfing,” many of his people indeed spend the next hour or so in wetsuits trying to catch the perfect wave. Or they might be on the weekly 30-mile lunchtime bike ride to Ojai. Or they could be on a “field trip” to Idaho or Wyoming to learn fly-fishing or to Yosemite National Park for rock climbing.
At a time when surveys show many Americans are worried about their jobs and research shows that long hours of face time in the office are highly rewarded, workers at Patagonia set their own hours. And the company signals that it doesn’t want those hours to be excessive; The child development center closes at 5 p.m. The headquarters buildings are locked, with everybody out, at 8 p.m., and on weekends.
Outdoor companies like Patagonia have a business incentive for making sure their employees have time to pursue sports and try out new gear. But in its 41-year history, Patagonia has taken it a step beyond, ensuring, for example, that even workers in its Reno distribution center have free yoga, an organic cafe, free scooters and skateboards and hiking trails out the back door.
Far from slacking off, the family-owned company has doubled in size and tripled in profits since 2008, earning $600 million in 2013. Its 2,000 employees around the globe are fiercely loyal. Turnover is minimal. The company is expanding into new global markets.
Now some in intensely competitive corporate America, who once dismissed Patagonia and other outdoor companies’ attention to work-life details, are beginning to take notice.
“We get a huge stream of people coming in now from different companies who want to discuss how we do it,” said Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, who, like many others on campus, was wearing flip-flops and shorts.
Neil Blumenthal, one of the founders of Warby Parker, an eyewear company, scheduled to visit Patagonia this month, is inspired by what he calls Patagonia’s “triple bottom line.”
“They’ve shown that you can build a profitable business while thinking about the environment and thinking about your team and community,” he said. Like Patagonia, Warby Parker has adopted a flexible work program they call “My Time.” And much like Patagonia’sprogram to fund environmentally responsible start-up companies, Warby Parker donates money for every pair of eyeglasses sold to help bring glasses to underserved communities.
Citing surveys showing that millenials would choose a company with a social mission over compensation, Blumenthal said his company believes that “having a positive impact on the world and treating people the way you want to be treated leads to long-term growth.”
Clearly, not everyone in corporate America agrees. Best Buy canned a Results Only Work Environment program that research found boosted worker productivity and health because of concern about its faltering bottom line. Yahoo forbade telecommuting for the same reason. The latest Families and Work Institute’s study of employers shows that in the past six years, while more companies are embracing informal flexibilty, fewer allow part-time work or job shares. And the share of those offering full pay for maternity leave, 9 percent, and paid leave for spouses and partners, 14 percent, also dropped.
Despite a lack of attention to employee health and happiness — or, arguably, because of it — some companies are enjoying record profits.
Nick Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, and his colleagues studied 700 firms around the world. “We find more productive, faster growing and better managed firms offer their employees a more attractive work-life balance package,” Bloom said in an e-mail. Many companies don’t, he said, because they’re simply not aware of that connection. “Managing large companies is complex and hard. . . . Getting work-life balance practices right is particularly hard, as this is a fast moving area, facilitated by modern IT, and a lot of firms are operating with outdated practices.”
A recent Deloitte Consulting report on the global 21st century workforce found that while a majority of employees say it’s important or extremely important to have what they call “work-life fit,” only 10 percent of employers say they’re doing an excellent job delivering it.
“It’s a real mixed picture,” said Ellen Galinsky, who heads the Families and Work Institute. In some cases, companies’ focus on work-life policies appears to be an effort “to counterbalance the fact that everybody’s been working so hard that they’re keeling over.”
Lisa Horn, who tracks workplace policies for the Society for Human Resource Management, which represents more than 200,000 members from the HR departments of companies around the world, said many businesses, which, since the Great Recession, have forced employees do more with less, are facing new realities: millennials who value time for both work and life, and fierce competetion for the most highly skilled employees who can easily jump ship for something better.
“Already 87 percent of employees say flexibility and balance is important or very important in their next job,” Horn said. “So it would behoove companies to adopt these strategies for competitive advantage.”
Among the mainstream companies that are beginning to adopt policies aimed at work-life balance, SHRM and the Families and Work Institute cite Goldman Sachs, which offers mindfulness training. Ontraport, a software and business services firm in California, which goes e-mail and chat “silent” for three hours a day so employees can focus on key projects they’re most passionate about. The Habitat Company, a Chicago real estate firm, discourages employees from answering work e-mails outside work hours. KPMG offers life coaching. And others, such as Public Policy Associates in Michigan and Inthinc Technology Solutions in Utah, are regularly assessing workloads to prevent overload and burnout.
When Adam Fetcher first arrived at Patagonia earlier this year to head up its global communications, he joked that he’d landed in Shangri-La. His new co-workers teased him that he wouldn’t last a week.
Fetcher had beena hard-charging workaholic who routinely clocked insanely long hours as a grass-roots organizer and then a spokesman in campaigns to both elect and then reelect President Obama. He also worked the same way in the press office for both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior. He slept with his smartphone, responding to crises, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, at all hours. He rarely slept or exercised.
“I put on some extra pounds over those years, eating cheeseburgers and drinking a little too much whiskey late at night,” said Fetcher. “I felt that was the only way I could work in politics if I wanted to get ahead. I got caught up in being in the loop on everything, and it was hard to go offline for 30 minutes to go to the gym. I was afraid I’d miss some piece of breaking news, no matter how inconsequential, and feel that I was falling behind.”
So coming to Patagonia has been something of an adjustment. Fetcher was worried he’d miss the adrenaline rush of being part of the most powerful government on Earth.
Within weeks of being hired, he found himself high in Chamonix Mont Blanc in the French Alps with some outdoor journalists, testing out new equipment. Although it’s still a challenge to unplug, he’s trying. He’s learning to surf and climb, albeit slowly. He’s biking, doing yoga and spending more time with friends. And, what’s most surprising to him, the less frenzied pace at work is giving him time to think.
“I’m working hard by anyone’s measure. But the work I’m putting into my job is a much higher quality than in the past,” he said. “I have time to really consider my decisions before I make them. I’m not in a reactionary mode all the time.”
Unlike most Americans, mothers and fathers at Patagonia get equal two-month-long paid parental leaves. Parents can travel with their babies, and the company will pay for a child development teacher to come along as part of the “traveling baby” program. Employees can take two-month paid sabbaticals to work on environmental projects they’re passionate about. Health care is covered at 100 percent. And everyone takes vacations. CEO Marcario loves to kayak along California’s central coast and hike in the desert in Joshua Tree National Park.
Patagonia and other outdoor industry companies have been in the forefront of work-life issues, some argue, because encouraging people to live a full life is actually what keeps them in business. L.L. Bean, manufacturer of outdoor clothing, offers workers up to five paid days a year to have an adventure outdoors. At rapidly growing organic food Clif Bar and Luna Bar, employees can work out on the company’s dime for a half-hour every day. They set their own flexible schedules. They’re eligible for six-week paid sabbaticals every seven years. And everyone gets one to nearly two months of paid vacation a year.
Michael Roberts, editor of Outside magazine, has been publishing the Best Places to Work in the outdoor industry for several years. In the depths of the Great Recession, when many mainstream companies began cutting back on work-life “perks,” as well as laying off employees themselves, he was surprised that so many outdoor companies made the decision to preserve benefits such as flexible work, free ski lift tickets and Friday afternoons off to go paddle-boarding or mountain biking.
“People who are happier and healthier are better workers and much more invested in what they’re doing,” Roberts said. “If you provide great health coverage but stress people out like crazy, who cares? The outdoor industry has been way out front on this for a long time.”
On a recent Friday, after an hour of surfing, Danielle Egge toweled off, changed back into her work clothes in a parking lot by the beach and bounded back to the office for afternoon meetings on the company’s new plant-based wetsuit. Adam Fetcher fielded calls about the company’s involvement in a climate change march and ate a late lunch outside at a picnic table. And Jenna Johnson, who prefers climbing to surfing, took a break to check on her two-year-old daughter in the Dolphin room.
As the toddler polished off her sandwich, the two touched foreheads and talked about their days so far. Johnson, director for Patagonia’s alpine clothing and equipment business, is involved in the design and marketing of a new backpack; her toddler is learning to pour water from a pitcher. After a while, Johnson hugged her daughter and said it was time to get back to work. The little girl protested, “Noooooo!” But had turned to play with friends before Johnson hit the front door.
“I’m always waving to her on the playground. I can see her on the swings or riding a tricycle, I’m never worried about her, or guilty or distracted, like so many of my friends whose children are 20 miles away,” Johnson said.
Patagonia was one of the first American companies to offer on-site child care. They remain among the only ones. In 2008, 9 percent of companies surveyed offered on-site child care, according to the Families and Work Institute. In 2014, just 7 percent did.
Many companies say such work-life benefits are too expensive. But Patagonia CEO Marcario has little patience for companies that don’t support their employees’ ability to live full lives. .
“We support the whole community, as opposed to a few people who do very, very well and enjoy all the perks,” she said. “We’ve figured it out. Seems to me that the rest of corporate America should be able to figure it out, too.”